This week we come to the end of the Book of Bamidbar and catch up with the Torah readings in Israel as we read the double Sedrot of Mattot and Maasei. The readings refer to tribes (Mattot) and journeys (Maasei). The 42 stops we made in the wilderness are recorded. The boundaries of the land we are to inherit are set out. (Although they will be revised in Devarim)
Moses confronts the challenges of how the people can be kept together faced with the need to deal with power, wealth, land ownership and conflict. How were we to deal with the prospect of policing our own behaviour? The institution of the cities of refuge represents an understanding of the fallibility of people and the avoidance of revenge tearing a community apart.
נַ֣חְנוּ נַֽעֲבֹ֧ר חֲלוּצִ֛ים לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן
We shall cross over in an armed force before the Lord to the land of Canaan
Those instructions for the war with Midian were horrendous. Why does God give such directions and seemingly ignore the possibility of peaceful coexistence?
Adjustments would be needed. The laws of inheritance for the daughters of Zelophedad required revision. The demands of the tribes that wanted to stay on the east of the Jordan needed to be addressed.
The reading starts
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר משֶׁה֙ אֶל־רָאשֵׁ֣י הַמַּטּ֔וֹת לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל
Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel - and continues with the question of vows.
When we accept someone as a leader, as a ‘head’, can we be sure that any promises or vows they make are not going to be broken? It is as true today as it was then. As a people we have learnt that the future is always going to be uncertain. Events and forces beyond our control made and still make our hopes and visions more and more difficult to achieve.
The tribes mentioned in the Sedra disappeared except for Judah and Benjamin. The other 10 tribes were scattered. History traces Dan to Ethiopia and Yemen; Zebulun, Asher and Manasseh to Iraq and India; Ephraim to Persia and Afghanistan. (Rabbi Raphael Zarum of LSJS traces these and others in his lectures and talks at the British Museum)
Despite this, despite losing our land, despite our dispersion and despite all our dashed hopes for peaceful coexistence we are still here. We argue and we disagree but by adapting to circumstances throughout the ages we somehow stay together. Our journeys, our “Maasei,” continue.